David A. Kenny
November 15, 1998

The degree to which two perceivers rate a target the same way; within the Social Relations Model assessed by the degree of target variance in the ratings. (This definition is related to but different from Harold Kelley's use of consensus in his covariation principle.  He views consensus as the information concerning whether different people behave the same way with the object; so if Mary kisses Joe, does Sally also kiss Joe?) It may seem odd that agreement is indexed by a variance, but if perceivers all exactly agree in their ratings of each target, all of the variance would be due to the targets.

Research on consensus addresses a fundamental issue in social science. Social psychologists have looked at consensus to determine if social perception is more in the head of the perceiver than in reality. Personality researchers have used research on consensus to justify the existence of personality traits. Methodologists use consensus to establish inter-rater reliability. Finally, anthropologists use consensus in judging objects (not persons) to validate a common culture.

Consensus is a necessary condition before many other questions in person perception can be asked. Various questions in self-other agreement, target accuracy, and meta-accuracy require consensus.

The level of consensus is fairly modest; usually, no more than one-third of the total variance is due to the target even when the perceivers know the target fairly well. In large part, perceivers do not agree because they have relatively idiosyncratic theories about targets. Bernadette Park has called these theories person models.

Surprisingly, consensus does not increase with greater acquaintance. Over ten longitudinal studies have been undertaken to examine the increase of consensus as a function of acquaintance, and not one of them provides evidence of such a relationship. Interestingly, some of these studies were undertaken with the aim of showing that consensus did increase as a function of acquaintance. The studies are quite heterogeneous, some taking place in the laboratory, others in classrooms, and some in residential settings. The interval between measurement is short (a few minutes) in some of the studies whereas in others it is quite long (a few months). So this finding that consensus does not increase with acquaintance is very robust.

The PERSON model can explain why the relationship between acquaintance and consensus is relatively flat. Basically, agreement increases because perceivers better know the target. However, agreement decreases because the effect of shared stereotypes and the effect of agreement about inconsistency decrease. These two effects offset each other to produce essentially no relationship between acquaintance and consensus.

Surprisingly, there is consensus at zero acquaintance, especially for judgments of Big Five factors of extroversion and conscientiousness. Using a non-college student sample of targets, Borkenau and Liebler have found consensus at zero acquaintance for all Big Five factors. Presumably, the consensus at zero acquaintance is due to shared stereotypes. (To learn about zero-acquaintance research.)

There is more consensus for extroversion than for the other Big Five factors. However, if perceivers are well acquainted with the targets, there is not much difference in consensus between the traits. In general, traits that are more behavioral or observable show more consensus.

The following factors determine consensus:

Overlap: The extent to which two perceivers see the same behaviors.

Communication: The extent to which the perceivers influence each other.

Similar Meaning Systems: The degree to which the perceivers interpret the same behavior in the similar ways.

Target Differences: The degree to which the targets vary on the dimension being rated.

Social Context: There is less consensus when a person is judged in two different social contexts (e.g., home and at work).

Shared Stereotypes: The degree to which assumptions about how appearance and nonverbal behavior are linked to personality are shared.
All of these factors are integrated in one equation in the PERSON model.

With Lynn Winquist, I am looking whether people who see the target in two different contexts (a college student with both a parent and a friend), see that target in the same way.  We have ratings of both and videotapes of the two interactions.

Taeyun Jung and I are examining the moderation of consensus.  It is his idea that the traditional moderators of consensus (observability, consistency, and social desirability) vary as function of target standing. So we measure the moderators using the target's standing on the trait.  We find that the study of why some targets are easier to rate concerns why perceivers disagree, not why they agree.  We show more that disagreement is tied to assimilation effects under low acquaintance and uniqueness under high acquaintance.

With Lynn Winquist, Tom Malloy, Linda Albright, and others, I am interested in culture as a moderator of consensus. We are comparing consensus in a Chinese and an American samples of adolescents and show that cultural importance moderates consensus. That is, if the culture values a trait, there is more consensus of judgments for that trait.  Culture also indicates what type of targets are more important and so are rated with greater consensus. Finally, I am interested in the degree to which some perceivers show more consensus than others; that is, the extent to which some persons respond in more prototypical fashion than do others. I have developed a multiplicative modification of the Social Relations Model to estimate these effects.

Chapter 4 of
Interpersonal Perception: A Social Relations Analysis

Kenny, D. A., Albright, L., Malloy, T. E., & Kashy, D. A. (1994). Consensus in interpersonal perception: Acquaintance and the big five. Psychological Bulletin, 116, 245-358.

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